The Desert Driver

Commuters are infringing on resort communities, making it hard to keep cheap housing around for local workers.
April 1, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
William Fulton
By William Fulton  |  Columnist
Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, Calif.

There's a good news-bad news story for California's Palm Springs area. It's got a dilemma that many destination resorts may face, especially if they are close to big cities.

Located in the low desert region of Southern California, 100 or so miles from Los Angeles, Palm Springs established itself as a tourist destination in the 1920s. Today, it's popular as a retirement area as well, and a place where younger folks and families live because jobs in the tourism business -- although they don't pay well -- are abundant and housing can be relatively cheap.

With affordable housing and lots of entry-level jobs, Palm Springs is currently a model of jobs-housing balance. The average commute is less than 15 minutes. Local streets may be crowded at some times of day, but it's hardly Los Angeles-like traffic.

But L.A. is creeping ever closer, and therein lies the problem. It's less than 50 miles to Palm Springs from Riverside, one of the fastest-growing areas in Southern California. Over time, commuters have pushed farther and farther east -- from L.A. and Orange County to Ontario to Riverside and beyond.

Meanwhile, the jobs are following them. The pattern is simple: Wherever commuters buy houses, you'll see pretty good jobs 40 to 50 miles away. Which means that it's now possible to commute westward from Palm Springs to a much better-paying job in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. So, in addition to being a tourist destination for people from L.A., Palm Springs is in the commuting shed as well.

And that's the good-bad news. People who live in Palm Springs now have a choice. They can have a short commute to a job in the tourist industry that doesn't pay well. Or they can have a long commute to a job in the L.A. metropolitan economy that pays much better. The choices those residents make will determine whether Palm Springs will continue to be what it has been -- a tourist economy with a local labor force -- or yet another Southern California suburb.

In all likelihood, it'll be both. The Palm Springs tourist economy is morphing. It's still a winter destination for people from all over the country who stay at resorts, but increasingly it's also a place where people from L.A. and elsewhere have second homes.

Unlike a lot of other tourist destinations, such as Santa Barbara and Aspen, the Palm Springs area is a place where people who work at the hotels and restaurants can still live nearby. They don't usually find housing in the same towns that host the resorts and high-priced second homes, such as Palm Desert and Rancho Mirage. But there are other towns, such as Indio and Coachella, that are much less expensive and where the mostly Latino labor force lives, often in overcrowded conditions. But at least they are in close proximity to their work. It's only about 15 miles from Indio to Rancho Mirage -- hence the 15-minute commute.

The coming suburbanization of the Palm Springs area will make this balance difficult to maintain. The commuters who find houses in Palm Springs are likely to be people who currently live elsewhere in Riverside County and are searching for a home to buy that is cheaper or provides more for their money than they can get elsewhere.

These folks will likely be better educated and more affluent than the locals who work in the tourist business. They'll probably bid the price of housing up, and that will squeeze the locals, who will be faced with a series of tough choices: Move farther east into the desert; overcrowd even more; or get some education and training so they can make more money by commuting westward.

In fact, a new commuting pattern already is emerging for tourism workers in Palm Springs. Instead of living in Indio or Coachella, they are moving 100 miles south to El Centro, near the Mexican border, where they can buy more house for their money and lead a middle-class life. But there, too, they are faced with increasing competition for housing. In addition to providing middle-income housing for Palm Springs workers, the subdivisions in El Centro provide low-end starter housing for workers in San Diego -- 100 miles to the west -- and high-end housing for managers across the border in Mexicali. Doesn't seem like there's much of a future for the jobs-housing balance of this region.